The Red Flags Of Modern Gaming

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jun 07, 2013 at 06:21 AM

Over the past few years, the number of gaming options on social networks and mobile devices has exploded, dwarfing those of current-gen consoles. With this endless new variety comes a shift in monetization methods, from traditional one-time purchases to freemium games and microtransactions.

While there are plenty of quality mobile and free-to-play titles on the market, some developers place a higher importance on maximizing revenue than delivering a good game experience. Console and PC gamers routinely take developers and publishers to task for any moneymaking ploy that interferes with gameplay, but what if the free game you just downloaded is your first introduction to the medium?

The following is a list of eight red flags of modern gaming. While these warning signs are not a guarantee that you're about to get fleeced, if you recognize more than one of these characteristics, you should think critically about how much time and money you're willing to spend on the game.

Console and PC gamers should also take note: Many of these aspects have already started to invade our favorite platforms, and will continue playing a larger role in our gaming experiences as next-gen systems embrace alternate monetization models.

Your Progress is Time-Gated
For many free-to-play games, "time is money" is more than a maxim – it's a core design principle. Whether you're waiting to harvest a crop in a simulation game, revive a party member in an RPG, or play another round in a match-three game, some developers introduce arbitrary time barriers in hopes that you'll pay money to bypass them. Sure, you could wait 15 hours for the next floor in your digital high-rise to be completed – but why not throw down a couple of nickels and dimes for instant gratification? While patient gamers may not mind the inconvenience, there's no good design reason for regulating the player's enjoyment in this way.

You Need Friends to Be Competitive
Playing games with friends is great, but some free-to-play titles approach multiplayer with the elegance of a chain letter. Haranguing friends to join your digital mafia family/magic guild/etc. isn't just annoying – it's the video game equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. Signing up friends should never be a core gameplay mechanic or a requirement for success. If every user review for the game you're considering ends with "Hey add me plz: Gamedood666," you're probably better off finding something else to play.

The Game Has More Than One Currency
Lots of developers blur the line of microtransactions by selling players a virtual currency that can also be earned by just playing the game. The balancing of this economy determines its fairness to the player, but if the game has more than one currency, watch out. Oftentimes, developers lock the most desirable items and upgrades behind a second currency, which is a lot harder – or sometimes impossible – to earn through gameplay. If the alternate currency is some combination of the developer's name and "bucks" or "coins," there's a good chance you'll be pressured to pay up the more you play.

The In-Game Shop is Its Own Separate Entity
Another indicator of how a game handles microtransactions is the pervasiveness of the in-game shop. Is it accessed solely when purchasing new items inside of the game, or is it featured in a prominent spot on the main menu screen before you even begin playing? The more the virtual store stands as its own separate entity, the greater the chance that trading real money for digital goods is a considerable, if not vital, component of the game.

One-Use Items Cost Real Money
We don't fault a developer for giving players the option to quickly unlock a new weapon/character/card pack/etc. with real money, but selling one-use items is a sign that they don't just want you to pay for the game – they want you to keep paying for the game. If a game sells one-use items, keep an eye out for difficulty spikes; a developer that's unscrupulous enough to sell temporary boosts for real money is also likely willing to balance the game in a way that requires buying said improvements.

The Game Rewards You For Promoting It
Free-to-play developers rely mainly on word of mouth to lift their games above the sea of other mobile offerings. While we don't mind when a games asks if we'd like to write a user review or "Like" it on Facebook, offering in-game incentives for such endorsements is a shady practice. These virtual quid pro quos are easily ignored, but unless you're working in the marketing department, it's not your job to advertise for the developer. Plying compliant players with virtual items or currency only muddies the reception of the game – was its popularity earned or paid for?

Help Costs Money
Many developers rely on microtransactions to make a profit, but what if your game doesn't contain peripheral elements that can be sold piecemeal? We've noticed a disturbing new trend in puzzle games: Developers charging money to provide players with hints. This practice contradicts good game design; the more confusing or vague a given puzzle is, the more money a developer can potentially make from it. To capitalize on your orchestrated confusion even further, some games don't give you the option to skip troublesome puzzles. If a game ever leaves you with no recourse other than to pay money for being stumped, just stop playing. In-game help isn't something that should be ransomed.

The Game is on a Top Grossing List
No shortage of manipulative games exists on the mobile market, a problem for which both Apple and Google are partly to blame. One of the main ways the App Store and Google Play direct players toward content is with a list of the Top Grossing Games on their respective platforms. This ranking isn't based on user reviews or number of downloads, but rather how much money a game makes via its price and in-game purchases. While good games periodically make the list, the titles at the top of the ranking tend to be the ones that most aggressively exploit the above techniques to make money, regardless of how it affects gameplay.

This article originally appeared in issue 241 of Game Informer.